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Understanding the Impacts of Trauma on the Brain

When we experience trauma, our brains don’t function like they normally do. We go into survival mode: think fight, flight, or freeze. Our brains automatically direct all of our energy toward dealing with this immediate threat until it’s gone. In most situations, this feeling of being in danger fades over time. Maybe it takes a few hours or a few days but you eventually start to feel better and less on edge.

But sometimes that initial trauma sticks, and you just can’t seem to shake the feeling that you’re still in survival mode. Trauma can change the way we think, act, and feel for a long time after the initial event occurred. Things like flashbacks or nightmares, constantly feeling on edge, anger, intrusive thoughts, and self-destructive behaviors are all very normal responses to trauma. You might feel as if you’re stuck living with these symptoms for the rest of your life, but the good news is these patterns can actually be reversed. With the right approach and knowledge, you can shift your brain towards overcoming past trauma and begin your healing journey.

The Brain’s Response to Trauma

Trauma’s impact on the brain is complex. Let’s talk science for a minute to review some parts of the brain. Trust me, I’m not a fan of science either. But I promise this is helpful to know in terms of healing, so stick with me.

To simplify things, let’s break it down into two parts: the subconscious system vs. the conscious system. Do those terms sound familiar? Your subconscious mind is responsible for any involuntary actions, and your conscious mind is responsible for rationalizing and logical thinking.

Okay, let’s take this one step further. The subconscious part of your brain involves the Limbic System (think automatic) and the conscious part of your brain involves the Frontal Lobe (think choice). Both of these systems work together to help you survive and stay safe. If you’re in trouble, the frontal lobe says, ‘yes, this is dangerous’ and allows the limbic system to react in either a fight, flight or freeze response. On the other hand, if your frontal lobe realizes you are not in any danger, it works to calm down the limbic system’s reaction.

You might be asking why this is relevant. Well, here’s why. Trauma can disrupt the ability of your limbic system and frontal lobe to work together, and this causes you to either go numb or into overdrive.

When we talk about feeling ‘triggered’ in terms of trauma, we are referring to the subconscious response. The limbic system becomes extra sensitive to our triggers (sights, sounds, smells, feelings, etc.). And even though you aren’t in any current danger, the limbic system overreacts and overwhelms the frontal lobe by triggering survival mode. As a result, your frontal lobe either undercompensates or overcompensates (cue feelings of numbness or going into overdrive). You do not know how to move forward and stay safe at the same time. 

There are many different ways these two parts of the brain work together when we talk about trauma and healing. Everyone’s experience is different, but many of the changes we see in the brain are similar. Here’s one common example.

Jane is out shopping and passes someone in the store who is wearing cologne. The smell of that cologne reminds her limbic system of her past trauma, and the limbic system now believes Jane is in danger. Jane feels her heart race, her mind starts spinning, and she feels like she wants to run away to be anywhere but here. 

This is a completely normal reaction for Jane’s body and brain to have to a potential threat, even though she wasn’t in any danger. It’s an automatic reaction. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In the past, the smell of cologne was associated with a threat, so the brain triggered a response thinking it had to do something to keep Jane safe. If you think about it, your brain is doing exactly what it should be doing. It’s just still thinking the smell of that cologne means danger, even though Jane knows otherwise.

You might be thinking, ‘great, so I’m stuck like this?” In short, no you’re not! It is possible to help your frontal lobe and limbic system heal and work together more efficiently. 

Healing the Brain

You may have heard the term neuroplasticity before. This simply means our brains are able to modify, adapt, and change throughout life. Some things changed in your brain when you experienced trauma, and we can appreciate that as it was necessary for survival at the time. But now that that experience is behind you, you probably want to leave it there and stop feeling such strong emotions at simple reminders. And I don’t blame you! The good news is, that is very possible. Maybe your triggers are similar to Jane’s triggers, or maybe it’s completely different for you. Either way, it is possible to rewire and retrain your brain again.

So, where do you begin? For starters, it’s always a good idea to process any past trauma in therapy. If you haven’t already, find yourself a trusted therapist to support you through your healing journey. 

The next step here is really going to be identifying where you’re having difficulty. Is it similar to Jane’s experience where you see or smell something that triggers you? Or maybe your past experiences are affecting your ability to focus, make decisions, and resist impulses. These are all things that can be worked on and improved with practice. 

During the healing process, your brain can create new pathways, increase function in some areas (like your frontal lobe!!) and strengthen connections. There are many different ways you can work on improving brain function. I’m sure you’ve heard of ‘brain games’ before, right? They’re basically games that stimulate your mind and help you practice certain cognitive functions like memory, problem solving, or critical thinking. 

There are similar exercises you can do on a daily basis that will be ‘training’ one or more parts of your brain. Here’s one example. We’ll call this exercise ‘Planning Ahead’.

Is there something you want or need to get done this week? Picking a day or time to sit down and accomplish that task can help to actually push yourself to do it, but it’s also a really simple exercise for your brain. When you write down even one reminder of what you want to focus on, you’re strengthening the connection between your limbic system and frontal lobe.

You can practice this by using the calendar or reminder app in your phone, or print out a good old-fashioned calendar from google. Maybe start by penciling in any appointments you have, and scheduling some of your household chores around them. Or maybe you want to schedule some time to sit down and read a book. Whatever it is, make a plan to do it, and follow through with that plan.

When you make conscious choices by planning, tracking, and following through, you’re strengthening your frontal lobe. This added strength builds new connections in your brain and creates positive experiences for you to look back on and feel proud of. 

With time and practice, these connections will get stronger and you’ll continue to feel empowered to act on your plans and dreams. And if those plans and dreams include overcoming your past trauma, you’ll feel empowered to take continued steps towards healing. 

If you’re interested in learning more about how to reverse the impacts of trauma, I’m facilitating a group called Finding Hope for women survivors of childhood sexual abuse this fall. Visit our website or call (631) 503-1539 for more information!

Jennifer Tietjen, LMSW